Actually, sex DOESN'T sell.

Sometimes not even if you're selling sex.

One of the oldest adages in advertising is: sex sells.

Marketers use hotties and hunks to shill everything from margarine to massive machinery. Here at BrainPosse, we're as guilty as anyone. Most of the magazine ads, brochures, websites, videos and newsletters we've done for boat manufacturers feature very attractive people, minimally attired to emphasize their physical attributes.

But does this really work?

The use of sexually-suggestive imagery and/or language in advertising is so pervasive that there are innumerable studies on the phenomenon.

According to one, by Dr. Tom Reichert, of the University of Alabama's Department of Advertising and Public Relations, the sexual content of advertising is overwhelmingly visual.

That study and numerous others use the amount and type of clothing as the primary index of sexual suggestiveness. Most rely on the four-stage rating scale first put forward by researchers L. C. Soley and L. N. Reid in The Journal of Advertising Research: demure, suggestive, partially-clad and nude.

Surprisingly, the sexual content of magazine ads indicate a recent decline at the most extreme end of the spectrum. In parallel studies conducted in 1964, 1984 and 2004, female nudity in ads rose from 23.1% in 1964 to 37.9% in 1984, then fell to 17.5% in 2004. Male nudity rose from 5.5% in 1964 to 9.5% in 1984 then disappeared – 0% – in 2004.

Using the Soley and Reid scale, women are overwhelmingly more likely to be objectified in sexually-suggestive ads than men. In the 2004 survey, 67.5% of ads showing females had either partially-clad or nude women, while only 6.8% of ads showing males had partially-clad men (none had nude men).

It seems unlikely that 67.5% – or even 6.8% – of magazine ads were for products or services promising a sex-related benefit. So most of those suggestive ads are using what the academics call "low association" imagery or verbal insinuation. That is, the sexual content has little or no relevance to the product or service or the promised benefit to prospective customers. It is simply intended to draw attention to the advertising message (see the Paris Hilton spot for Carl's Jr.).

Presumably these low-association sexual content ads are based on the notion that once folks were drawn into the ad they read more, correctly identify the advertiser, attribute a persuasive benefit to the product or service and form an intent to purchase.

Because sex sells, right?

Maybe not. Some events have called that hoary adage into question.

There was the announcement by Geoffrey Arnold, president of the Nevada Brothel Association, that business is drooping. In 2008, Revenues at the state's legal brothels are down as much as 45% from a year ago.

Naturally one would expect an industry buttoned-up enough to have a trade association to have a plan to deal with hard times, and the brothel owners do. More alluring staff? More imaginative services? Previously unattainable transports of ecstasy?

Nope. Gas coupons.

The Shady Lady Ranch is giving $50 gas coupons to clients who spend $300, and $100 coupons to those who spend $500.

And not just gas coupons:

  • The Moonlight Bunny Ranch gave a whole new meaning to "stimulus checks" by doubling the value of the checks the Treasury Department sent to taxpayers to jump start the stalled economy. (Possibly the only economic stimulus checks that weren't funneled to Japan and Korea for flat-panel TVs.)
  • Another intimate entertainment establishment has a "frequent flyer" volume discount package for regular customers.
  •  The Chicken Ranch offers a $100-off coupon to active-duty and retired military personnel.

What's next? Senior citizen discounts? Twofer Tuesdays? Matinee pricing before 3:00 P.M.?

It's instructive that when faced with tough economic times, brothel owners didn't go for sexy sizzle. They're using the same, mundane, price-based appeals that are the default choice of car dealerships, furniture stores and fast food outlets everywhere. 

Hmmm. So sex isn't selling brothels' services? But surely it sells beer.

Actually, it probably doesn't. At least not according to a recently published article.

The new information is from the same Dr. Tom Reichert referenced in the fourth paragraph of this article. (He seems to spend a suspicious amount of time and attention on the subject.)

Dr. Reichert's article is a synthesis of dozens of academic and commercial studies on sexual content in advertising. It debunks the "sex sells" myth pretty emphatically. At least for the low-association categories which use sexual imagery or innuendo to attract attention to ads for products or services with no direct association with sexuality.

All of the studies Dr. Reichert cites in his article are based on the similar information-processing or hierarchy-of-effects models. In both models the process of turning an audience member into a customer moves through sequential steps:

  •  Awareness
  •  Attention
  •  Liking
  •  Comprehension
  •  Receptivity
  •  Persuasion
At BrainPosse we believe in five out of six. We have seen a great deal of non-academic research indicating that "liking" is not a necessary step in the process. People are frequently persuaded to choose products or services by ads or commercials they dislike. We'd also add recall to the mix.

Those quibbles aside, we believe that Dr. Reichert and the many studies to which he refers are correct for low-association sexual imagery.

Dr. Reichert notes that, "In the advertising context, there is strong evidence that sexual information attracts attention." Studies using every technique from self-reporting to galvanic skin response to Starch "noted" data confirm that. Other studies found that recall of ads with sexual content was higher than that of ads for the same product without the gratuitous sexuality.

So far so good, but that's where the process breaks down. Recall of the sexual content was higher than average ad recall. But recall of the brand name was significantly lower. Copy recall was also much lower in sexual-contents versus non-sexual-content ads.

There was a marked decline noted in the processing of information the advertiser wanted to convey in sexual-content ads. All attention – and cogitation – was focused on the gratuitous sexual element and none on the brand or the benefit.

As M. W. Alexander and B. B. Judd reported in The Journal of Advertising Research, "With few exceptions, low-sex or no-sex conditions resulted in significantly higher brand-recall scores than moderate- and high-sex conditions."

Some important conclusions follow naturally from this information:

  • Sexual content increases awareness of an ad or commercial.
  • People seeing an ad or commercial with low-association sexual content are more likely to remember the sexual image than the ad.
  • Copy in ads with low-association sexual content is less likely to be remembered.
  • The brand in ads with low-association sexual imagry is significantly less likely to be remembered.
Actually, gratuitous sex may do more than blunt the effectiveness of ads and commercials. A study by Susan Cummings found that 75% of women and 53% of men aged 35 to 54 said that sex in advertising can be offensive. Women are apparently more outraged than men (possibly because objectification of women is ten times that of men), and somewhere between 20% and 29% of them avoid products with explicit sexual advertising.

That 20% to 29% reduction in a brand's potential market seems like a high price to pay to run an ad or commercial which is intrinsically less effective than one without sexual content.

We feel obliged to point out two things:

  • The perils of sexual content in ads and commercials are more pronounced among low-association and less pronounced in high-association product categories. Studies noted that message recall of lingerie and condom ads with sexual content was in the normal range. (Brand recall was below normal, however.) 
  • The backlash effect against advertisers using sexual content diminishes – or even disappears – among younger (teens and twenties) audiences. The ads and commercials still lose effectiveness, they just don't create active aversion to the advertised product.)
It can be hard to let go of long-held beliefs. But there's another bit of received wisdom that refuted the "sex sells" concept more than half a century ago.

An old warning about the negative impact of unrelated distractions – like gratuitous sex – in ads and commercials appeared in Rosser Reeves' 1960 book, Reality in Advertising. Reeves warned about the dangers of "vampire video," visual elements unrelated to a commercial's main point that distract the audience and reduce effectiveness dramatically. And low-association sexual content is certainly as distracting and unrelated a visual as we can imagine.

The danger of vampire video transcends media, and web pages, newspaper ads, outdoor or direct mail can be weakened by irrelevant elements just as easily as the TV spots that were Reeves' m├ętier.

In most cases sex doesn't sell. To find out more about what does, and how BrainPosse can harness those effective motivators for your brand, click here, or call BrainPosse at 865-330-0033.